Skip to main content

College Football: 15 Things to Watch in 2022

Bryce Young, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

The start of the 2022 college football season is just days away. And as usual, there's no shortage of storylines, players to watch and looming questions hanging over the sport. Georgia hopes to go back-to-back, but Alabama is primed for another run at the national championship. Ohio State hopes to unseat Michigan atop the Big Ten, while Clemson aims to get back to the CFB Playoff after missing out last fall. Also, big-time hires at USC, LSU, Notre Dame and Miami are worth watching as the season progresses.

What are the biggest storylines surrounding college football for the 2022 college football season? Matt Hinton examines the usual suspects for the College Football Playoff, new coaches, expansion, Texas, Nebraska and more:

College Football: 15 Things to Watch in 2022

1. Georgia: Rebuild or Repeat?

Well, they did it. Georgia fans had been waiting four decades to reset the “Years Since Georgia Won a National Championship” clock to zero, and the 2021 team delivered in the most satisfying possible fashion by vanquishing Alabama in the championship game. As of Jan. 11, they’ll never have to listen to another recounting of their record against Nick Saban’s Tide or the words “since 1980...” ever again. The investment in Kirby Smart’s vision has paid off in full. So: What next?

In a different era, the Dawgs might have been resigned to rebuilding. These days, though, the concentration of talent at the top has largely rendered the concept of “rebuilding” at places like Georgia obsolete. By stacking top-ranked recruiting classes, Smart has built a roster composed mainly of two types of players: Those who are already stars, like TE Brock Bowers, DL Jalen Carter and OLB Nolan Smith, and those who project to be as soon as they get the chance.

Barring disaster, the major obstacle to returning to the playoff is a familiar one: Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Last year, the Bulldogs were so far ahead of the pack after 12 games that even a lopsided loss in Atlanta wasn’t enough to knock them out of the national race, or prevent them from reversing the outcome with the big prize on the line a few weeks later. By the time the postseason rolls around this year, they don’t plan on needing a second chance.

2. Bryce Young Goes for Two

Bryce Young was who he was supposed to be in 2021, claiming the Heisman Trophy and leading Bama to the cusp of another national championship in his first year as a starter. He was the most consistent quarterback in college football, throwing multiple touchdown passes in every game except the championship loss to Georgia, and arguably the most dynamic. He would have been the first QB off the board had he been eligible for this year’s draft, and he enters (presumably) his last year on campus as a heavy favorite to go out as the top pick in 2023.

Going back-to-back in the Heisman race might be a longer shot. Famously, only one winner, Ohio State RB Archie Griffin in 1974-75, has claimed the trophy two years in a row, a feat that might be impossible to replicate unless Young demolishes his sophomore production so thoroughly that he leaves voters no choice but to grant him the distinction. Leading the Crimson Tide back to the playoff is probably a bare minimum requirement. Young has already cemented his legacy as a great college player. Is he a historic player? That’s the bar he’ll be measured against this time around.

Related: Ranking All 131 Quarterbacks for 2022

3. Michigan: Sustaining or Sobering Up?

After six years of diminishing returns, the consensus last summer was that the Jim Harbaugh project at Michigan had run out of gas. Instead, the 2021 team delivered one of the most surprising and satisfying seasons in Ann Arbor in a generation. The Wolverines ended their infamous losing streak against Ohio State en route to the Big Ten title — Michigan’s first since 2004 — and a subsequent trip to the playoff, where even a blowout semifinal loss to Georgia felt more like a footnote than a defining moment.

Now, sustaining that momentum is a different challenge. Harbaugh, finally vindicated at his alma mater, leapt at the opportunity in January to negotiate a return to the NFL; although his well-publicized deal with the Minnesota Vikings fell through in the end, the episode invited speculation that Harbaugh’s days in the college game might still be numbered.

Much is riding on the unresolved QB dynamic between the incumbent, steady but limited veteran Cade McNamara, and rising sophomore J.J. McCarthy, a former five-star recruit who flashed star potential in a part-time role as a freshman. If McCarthy is ready to take over full time, he has the potential to take a relatively conservative attack to another level. If not, opposite a rebuilt defense, the encore to last year’s triumphs may feel more like a hangover.

4. Clemson at a Crossroads

For most teams, a 10–3 season is a banner year. For Clemson in 2021, it was closer to a crisis. Besieged by injuries, the Tigers never looked like their usual, dominant selves, ceding the ACC crown for the first time since 2014 and trading their annual playoff slot for a trip to the Cheez-It Bowl. Nearly every game was a battle, with four of their six ACC wins coming by six points or fewer. The heir apparent at quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, fell far short of expectations. In the end, even the momentum of a six-game winning streak was blunted by the departure of two pillars of the championship years, long-tenured coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott, for head-coaching jobs.

Dabo Swinney is banking on continuity to carry the day. He promoted from within to fill both coordinator vacancies and only acknowledged the transfer portal in response to questions about his indifference to it. The lineup will essentially be a healthier version of the one that found its footing late last year.

Although Clemson is the favorite in the ACC, as usual, the distinction is more tentative than it’s been in a long time. If they solve the QB question, the Tigers could be playoff contenders. And, as you can see from our Top 25, that’s Athlon’s prediction. But this is not a program that wants to get accustomed to thinking in terms of “if.”

Related: Ranking All 131 College Football Teams for 2022

5. Buckeyes Bounce Back

In certain ways, Ohio State’s loss to Michigan last November was a milestone: The upset snapped OSU’s run of eight straight wins in the rivalry, four consecutive Big Ten titles and back-to-back playoff trips, all in the span of just a few hours. By the New Year, though, the outline of the next championship run was already beginning to shape. Despite all of their top pro prospects opting out of the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes’ dramatic, come-from-behind win over Utah served notice that the 2022 edition would be back in the thick of the national race.

All but three of OSU’s 22 starters in Pasadena are back. The headliners on offense — prolific QB C.J. Stroud, versatile RB TreVeyon Henderson and electric WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba — all lived up to the hype in their first year as starters and will be arguably the best in the nation at their respective positions. Behind Smith-Njigba, the concentration of rising talent at receiver remains unmatched outside of Columbus. All but one starter returns on the O-line, and all but three on defense. As ever, where there’s a vacancy, there’s a blue-chip prospect to fill it.

As much talent is on hand, and as explosive as the offense figures to be, any improvement at all from the defense under new coordinator Jim Knowles is likely to make 2021’s also-ran finish look like a blip on the radar.

Related: What the Big Ten's New TV Deals Means for Expansion and Realignment

6. Notre Dame: Betting the Future on Freeman

Over 12 years in South Bend, Brian Kelly coached in and won more games than anyone in Notre Dame history, but he wasn’t truly close to winning the big one. The mandate for his successor, 36-year-old Marcus Freeman, is to get the Irish over the hump.

So far, so good. The locker room enthusiastically supported Freeman’s promotion from defensive coordinator, and his counterpart on offense, Tommy Rees, opted to stay as chief play-caller despite being offered more money to follow Kelly to LSU. At the start of spring practice, Notre Dame also boasted the No. 1 recruiting class in the 2023 cycle according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings, territory it never staked out under Kelly.

More immediately, the 2022 team has some significant holes to fill, beginning with quarterback, where sophomore Tyler Buchner is first in line. The schedule serves up Ohio State in the opener and November dates against Clemson and USC. If the Irish survive with their streak of five straight 10-win seasons intact, the Freeman era will be officially off to a running start.

7. Miami Makes its Move

Whether you loved or hated the bold, brash Miami teams of the Jimmy Johnson era and the talent-laden turn-of-the-century editions, you have to admit: College football is a lot more fun when the Canes are relevant.

So are championship expectations still realistic at The U? By throwing Manny Diaz overboard to make way for Mario Cristobal, the answer from the school brass is an emphatic yes.

Cristobal, a Miami native who was part of two national title teams as a player, was a natural target based on his local ties and his successful run at Oregon. He was an expensive one, too, commanding more than twice Diaz’s salary as well as an ambitious investment in his staff. The school obliged, ponying up to poach OC Josh Gattis from Michigan and add former FBS head coaches Kevin Steele and Charlie Strong on defense — ambitious moves for a program not exactly known for its ability to dig deep.

The roster is largely a blank slate, with one important exception: redshirt sophomore QB Tyler Van Dyke, whose emergence last year pointed the way out of the doldrums. At 6'4", 224pounds, Van Dyke already looks like Miami’s best pro prospect behind center in years. If the initial phase of the project has a chance, his right arm will be the main reason why.

Related: College Football's Top 50 Breakout Players for 2022

8. Cajun-Flavored Gators

The Dan Mullen era at Florida ended abruptly, unraveling last fall over the course of just a few weeks. Startling as it was, though, the end was also depressingly familiar: Before Mullen, the bottom fell out on both of his predecessors, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, in similar fashion, running the Gators’ record on head-coaching hires to 0-for-3 for the decade.

Enter Billy Napier. At his last stop, Louisiana, Napier turned the Ragin’ Cajuns into an unlikely mid-major power: His last three seasons there were easily the best in school history, yielding 34 wins, back-to-back Top 25 finishes and, in 2021, the program’s first outright conference championship in more than half a century. The man can coach. But can he recruit? In four years in Gainesville, Mullen signed just two 5-star prospects out of high school. The top priority for his successor is closing the gap in the Jimmys and Joes department.

On that front, Napier does have experience in high-stakes, hard-crootin’ regimes, having paid his dues as an assistant under Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher. He was known in Lafayette as an energetic recruiter, landing the Sun Belt’s top class per 247Sports’ Composite rankings three years in a row from 2019-21. Florida, still less than 15 years removed from its last national title, remains one of the sport’s premier opportunities. But as the last three guys who sat in Napier’s seat can attest, it can be a short-lived one, too.

9. Baylor: Here to Stay?

On the field and off, Baylor has endured one of the most manic-depressive decades in the sport’s history. The Art Briles years put the program on the map, until scandal turned it into a smoking crater. From the ashes, his successor, Matt Rhule, rebuilt the Bears into contenders in just three years before making the leap to the NFL — at which point they promptly crashed again, finishing 2–7 in 2020 under first-year head coach Dave Aranda. But the 2021 team bounced back even stronger, setting the school record for wins (12) en route to the Big 12 title and Baylor’s first major bowl win since 1956.

Finally, some stability is in order. Aranda signed a contract extension through 2029 and kept both coordinators. In Year 3, the roster is almost fully reshaped in the staff’s image. Despite a wave of departures for the next level (six Bears were drafted, all Rhule recruits), there is continuity on both lines and optimism behind center, where redshirt sophomore Blake Shapen emerged late last season and officially overtook incumbent Gerry Bohanon in the spring. A couple of big-ticket transfers on defense, DL Jaxon Player (Tulsa) and LB Josh White (LSU), filled immediate needs.

Beyond a relatively wide-open Big 12 race this season, there is no reason Baylor can’t settle in as a year-in, year-out contender on Aranda’s watch once the league’s traditional heavies, Oklahoma and Texas, leave for the SEC. In the meantime, the defending conference champ has no intention of being demoted to a dark horse in 2022.

Related: College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2022

10. Shuffling the Deck

This year brings the latest round of college football realignment, and it’s only just getting revved up. Consider 2022 the prelim, with the main event — Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC and USC and UCLA to the Big Ten — yet to come.

This season, the upstart Sun Belt Conference, leaning heavily into its newfound identity as the flavor of the month among Group of Five conferences, has grown from 10 to 14 teams, adding C-USA refugees Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss and newly minted FBS program James Madison, long an FCS power. C-USA, meanwhile, hangs on for one more year as an 11-team league, its long-term future in some doubt.

Bigger changes are looming. Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are bolting the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12 in time for the 2023 academic year, along with BYU, which is shedding its independent status for the security of a conference that is reeling from the impending losses of its bell cows but making the best of a changing landscape. In response, the AAC is poaching UAB, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and UTSA from C-USA, which in turn is putting out its welcome mat for Liberty, New Mexico State and a pair of soon-to-be FCS graduates — Jacksonville State and Sam Houston.

The biggest dominoes fall in the not-too-distant future, when the Sooners and Longhorns bolt their longtime conference home for the unfriendly confines of the SEC. Leaving a feisty middleweight league to take on college football’s heavyweights is a bold move made necessary in the minds of OU and Texas bosses by the demands of today’s NIL-driven, recruiting-dependent landscape. This offseason also brought about another round of changes, as USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten in 2024. While that move is the only one so far in another busy summer, plenty of uncertainty remains about the Big Ten's future plans and the outlook for the Pac-12.

Change is the only constant, and college football fans are about to get a big dose of it.

11. Sark 2.0

The 2010s were a lost decade at Texas, and Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian was more of the same. A wipeout loss at Arkansas set the tone; from there, the Longhorns never really recovered, spiraling into a six-game losing streak in Big 12 play. They collapsed against Oklahoma, blew double-digit leads over Oklahoma State and Baylor in consecutive weeks and sealed their descent in the standings with an overtime flop against lowly Kansas. At no point did they look like a team on the verge of being “back,” by any definition.

Does that mean a reprieve from the annual ritual of preseason hype? Ha, no. Where there’s talent, hope springs eternal, and if there’s one thing Texas will never lack, it’s talent. In addition to a top-five recruiting class, Sarkisian made a huge splash in the transfer portal by landing coveted QB Quinn Ewers, a Texas high school legend who initially spurned UT for Ohio State. The defense ... well, let’s just say the only direction it can go under second-year coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is up.

An early non-conference visit from Sarkisian’s former employer, Alabama, should be revealing. Hang with the Tide, and it could be a catalyst for a run at the Big 12 crown in Texas’ swan song in the conference.

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2022-23

12. Anything Goes in the Group of Five

Just when it was beginning to look like the CFP committee might never allow it to happen, Cincinnati shattered the glass ceiling in 2021 by becoming the first Group of Five team to crash the playoff from outside of the Power 5 conferences. Now, with the core of the playoff run moving on, the door is wide open for a new mid-major standard bearer to make its move.

In the American Athletic Conference, the major challenge to Cincinnati’s throne will come from Houston, which returns the bulk of a team that finished 12–2, and UCF where head coach Gus Malzahn has assembled a depth chart packed with Power 5 transfers. (Remember, Houston and UCF are scheduled to make the leap along with Cincinnati to the Big 12 in 2023.) BYU, another future member of the Big 12 expansion party, is essentially the same team that went 10–3 last year despite major attrition from an 11–1 season in 2020. Appalachian State, arguably the most consistent Group of Five program since leveling up to the FBS ranks in 2014, is primed for a big year in the Sun Belt. And never count out Boise State in the Mountain West.

Big non-conference games to circle on the schedule: Cincinnati’s trip to Arkansas; App State’s season-opening gambits against North Carolina and Texas A&M; and BYU’s dates against Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame and Arkansas. Back-to-back playoff bids may not be in the cards, but as for the major bowl slot reserved for the highest-ranked Group of Five champ, a brand-name victim on the résumé still goes a long way.

Related: Ranking All 131 College Football Teams for 2022

13. Huskers Book a Bowl Bid

Nebraska fans will be happy to know that they can make some December plans involving something other than holiday gatherings with annoying family members. Athlon Sports is projecting that the Cornhuskers will face old Big 12 rival Kansas State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Hey, it’s a start.

It’s worth noting that the Huskers were a lot closer to a breakthrough in 2021 than it seems at first glance. By record, Nebraska’s 3–9 finish in 2021 was one of the worst in school history. It was also one of the weirdest: All nine of the losses were decided by single digits, leaving these Huskers with the bizarre distinction of having scored exactly as many points against Big Ten opponents as they allowed — 239 to 239 — in the course of going 1–8 in conference play.

Regardless of the margins, with four straight losing seasons under his belt, there’s no pretense that head coach Scott Frost can survive a fifth. The offseason was fueled by that sense of urgency. The Huskers were active in the transfer portal, bringing in a new quarterback, Texas starter Casey Thompson, to replace four-year starter Adrian Martinez, as well as projected starters at wide receiver, cornerback and O-line. They put a capper on their portal success by landing TCU D-lineman Ochaun Mathis, who will step in and start immediately. Frost was once regarded as a home-run hire. In Year 5, he gets one more chance to bring that promise to fruition.

14. West Coast Blues

Nearly a decade into the playoff era, the question of expanding the format is less a matter of if than when. And among the power conferences, no league is more desperate to get it done than the Pac-12. Just two of the 32 playoff slots to date have gone to Pac-12 teams, most recently in 2016; in four out of five seasons since, the Pac-12 champ hasn’t even cracked the top 10 in the CFP committee’s final rankings.

It doesn’t help that all of the usual suspects are in various states of flux. USC and Washington both fired their head coaches last fall on the way to finishing 4–8. Oregon lost head coach Mario Cristobal to his alma mater, Miami. Stanford, once a beacon of stability under David Shaw, posted a last-place finish in 2021. In four years under Chip Kelly, UCLA is seven games below .500. At Arizona State, Herm Edwards was forced to replace most of his staff this offseason due to an NCAA investigation that could eventually claim his job as well.

The playoff drought can’t go on forever. But until one of the would-be contenders finally puts it all together — steady Utah and resurgent USC are the top candidates this season, and both are in Athlon’s preseason top 10 — the Pac-12 race remains a strictly regional affair.

Related: Ranking All 131 Quarterbacks for 2022

15. USC: The Missing Linc?

No program on the West Coast or anywhere else has underachieved over the past decade quite like USC, which has cycled through one uninspired, locally connected coaching hire after another in its quest for the next Pete Carroll. The tendency to keep it in the family was one of the many reasons their poaching of Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley over Thanksgiving weekend seemed to come out of nowhere: For the first time in ages, the Trojans went big, sparing no expense to reassert their place among the sport’s heavy hitters.

A roster overhaul began via the transfer portal, including three of Riley’s former players at OU. The headliner, sophomore QB Caleb Williams, is a game-changing talent who seized the Sooners’ starting job as a true freshman and arrived in January to legitimate Heisman hype. The rest of the lineup has a lot more to prove.

In a league ripe for the taking, Williams’ presence alone is enough to make USC a preseason favorite for the Rose Bowl. That in itself would represent a dramatic overnight turnaround. But for their bet on Riley to pay off, it would be just the first step.

– Written by Matt Hinton for Athlon Sports' 2022 College Football (SEC version) Annual. Click here to get your copy today!

Podcast: Preseason Awards, QBs on the Rebound, Fall Practice Notes and the Latest on QB Battles